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Fake news beyond the headlines

Mainstream media news content does no longer contain anything relevant beyond the screaming headlines designed to generate clicks.

Published: October 14, 2017, 8:26 am

    On June 4, the satirical news site the Science Post published a block of “lorem ipsum” text under a scary headline: “Study: 70 percent of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting.”

    Some 46 000 people shared the post, providing some proof that only headlines matter, since the content was more or less rubbish.

    Sadly, the satirical headline has been validated by a real study, when computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute, revealed that 59 percent of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked: In other words, most people appear to retweet news without ever reading it.

    Worse, the study finds that these blind peer-to-peer shares determine what news gets circulated, and help to shape mainstream political and cultural agendas.

    “People are more willing to share an article than read it,” study co-author Arnaud Legout commented. “This is typical of modern information consumption. People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper.”

    Legout and his co-authors had collected two data sets: the first, on all tweets containing Bit.ly-shortened links to five major news sources during a one-month period last summer; the second, on all of the clicks attached to that set of shortened links, as logged by Bit.ly, during the same period.

    After scrubbing the data, the researchers found a rough road map as to how headlines go viral on Twitter.

    “Viral” news may be widely shared, but not necessarily read, and only 4 out of 10 people reading this article, would be those who actually read news.

    The researchers came up some other pertinent observations. Most clicks to news stories, they found, were made on links shared by regular Twitter users, and not the media outlet itself. The links that users clicked on were much older too than the current headlines.

    “Clicks” generate “visits” which convert into advertising revenue. In that sense outrageous headlines make economic sense, if only in the short-term, as the best paying advertisers seek a quality audience. In the long-term they may want avoid such sites.

    Sensationalist false headlines were previously a feature mostly of the tabloid media, but this is unfortunately no longer the case. Headlines of the “reputable” press no longer transmit facts. Real information, real news and real facts are hard to come by.

    This trend has lead to easier manipulation of readers by the media. Headlines disproven by the text accompanying them, have become common:

    Trump threatens ‘fire and fury’ in response to N. Korean threats
    “It was not immediately clear what Trump was responding to.”

    Exclusive: Russian-linked Facebook ads targeted Michigan and Wisconsin
    “A large number of ads appeared in [other] areas of the country that were not heavily contested in the elections.”

    Duterte’s ‘drug war’ is fueling the spread of disease
    “It is too soon to map out exactly how the drug war will affect the health of Filipinos.”

    But an Australian example of current headline-writing is perhaps the most poignant one.

    Top secret information about Australia’s military hacked

    The introduction states:

    TOP secret technical information about new fighter jets, navy vessels, and surveillance aircraft has been stolen from an Australian defence contractor.

    The story could be relevant – if true. But it does not contain what the headline promises. The text says:

    “.. the firm was subcontracted four levels down from defence contracts.”
    “.. a mum and dad type business … with about 50 employees”
    “the admin password, to enter the company’s web portal, was ‘admin’ and the guest password was ‘guest’”
    “the information … included a diagram in which you could zoom in down to the captain’s chair and see that it was one metre away from the navigation chair”
    “the information disclosed was commercially sensitive, it was unclassified”

    The last snippet completely rebuts the headline, but only appears right at the bottom of the story. A truthful headline should have read: “Tiny mechanics workshop puts marketing stuff on open website”. But then no one would have clicked on it.

    While millions of blog posts are published every day, only a small percentage gain traction and attract readers.

    And among those readers, 55 percent will read the blog post for 15 seconds or less, bufferapp.com says.

    “The internet is a daily battle for attention. Everywhere you turn, people are trying to share the latest marketing hacks with many of the same points echoed repeatedly,” Ash Read argues.

    “There are formulas to it — if you find the best keywords and write the correct content, you can build a high-traffic blog. That’s almost a guarantee.”

    Many publishers are currently focusing on “attention metrics” alongside more traditional measurements like pageviews.

    As Medium’s Ev Williams noted: “We pay more attention to time spent reading than number of visitors at Medium because, in a world of infinite content — where there are a million shiny attention-grabbing objects a touch away and notifications coming in constantly — it’s meaningful when someone is actually spending time.”

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    • I admit to scanning elsewhere, especially when I’m in a hurry. But I’m thorough, reading Free West Media articles. Why? You present “just the facts”, without bias. Much appreciated, Free West Media!

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